"Overseas contingency operations."
Add two entries to the catalogue of newspeak, courtesy of the Obama administration. There will be more, as there are in every presidency. About these two selections the Wall Street Journal noted:
When George W. Bush was President, not everyone cared for his assertions that America was engaged in a "global war on terror." Among the critics was the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, whose 2004 report argued that "the enemy is not just 'terrorism,' some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism -- especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology."
But whereas the 9/11 Commission counseled clarity, the new Administration is emitting a haze of obfuscation. The Pentagon's preferred term is "overseas contingency operations," a bit of military jargon of which "overseas" is the only part recognizable in plain English, and which obscures the key point that the war -- sorry, the "operations" -- began in earnest only after terrorists attacked American cities.
And, of course, "man-caused disasters" is a construction of Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of homeland security. The term replaces "terrorism." The secretary explained the change, saying the administration wanted to move away from "the politics of fear." Under that logic, perhaps "cancer" can be replaced with "regrettable medical deviation" or an air crash can become an "unscheduled travel disruption."
This is newspeak. The term originated in George Orwell's novel, "1984," published in 1949. It has found a long life outside novels. President Truman called the Korean War a "police action," a bit of newspeak that infuriated most Americans. The casualties were the same as in things called wars. Many on the far left now call themselves "progressives," although some of the regimes that have their sympathy are anything but progressive. Diplomats speak of "full and frank" discussions, when they really mean arguments. Corporations aren't downsized, they're "rightsized." And some presidents haven't spoken of downturns in the economy. They're "soft landings." Then there's the very name of the UN Human Rights Council. Human Rights Council? That's somewhat like calling a serial killer a "population control officer."
What is the purpose of newspeak? It is to distort the image of an event, a person, or an idea in the mind of the reader or viewer. It is, by definition, an act of dishonesty. Newspeak can include what is said, but can also include what is left out. Consider this piece of newspeak:
"Anti-war activist Jim Smith "
We've seen that thousands of times, but it's newspeak. As Christopher Hitchens points out, many "anti-war" activists are nothing of the kind. They aren't anti-war. They're just against any war the United States has a chance of winning. But by leaving out the overall political view, and records, of "anti-war activists," the description is a willful distortion. We see the same distortion in terms like "human rights crusader." Some may be, but in many instances their definition of human rights is bizarre. After all, the old Soviet club was made up of nations that called themselves, "The People's Republic of...," even though there wasn't a republican thing about them.
When we think of newspeak, we usually think of the politicians who practice it. But that's a narrow concept. When political leaders use newspeak, it's easily detected, and easily ridiculed. Already "man-caused disasters" and "overseas contingency operations" have become the stuff
of comedy. They've been laughed at and satirized. The newspeak often backfires, especially when it's absurd, by calling attention to the very words and ideas the newspeaker is trying to avoid.
Far more dangerous is newspeak when practiced by the media. Words and phrases are slipped in, and too often go unchallenged. They are repeated day after day, until we get used to them. In the early seventies, press critics noticed that right-wing tyrants were usually called "dictators" in some newspapers, but that the strongman of the Soviet Union was called "Soviet leader " That is newspeak. It is newspeak when the press refers to terrorists as "militants," which has now become commonplace. It is newspeak when the new Israeli leader is called "Israel's hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu," but the Palestinian leader is simply called "President Abbas," as if he were a softliner, just a nice guy, even though he has dabbled in Holocaust denial. These things slip by, and they condition our minds.
Newspeak in the media has a number of origins, but today the most important source is the college or university. Our educational institutions have become masters of newspeak, as they twist the language for plainly political goals. "Diversity" is a perfectly respectable term, but on college campuses it often applies only to groups that are preferred by the political left. A barefaced lie can often be called "an alternative narrative." Young journalists get the idea, sadly correct, that meanings can be distorted to create an image. Some bring that idea to news reporting.
Can newspeak be defeated? Yes, and the key is providing alternative voices. Every example of newspeak given in this article was exposed by someone pointing it out, and dissecting it. The mainstream media too often does not supply the alternative voices we need. It is the growing power and reach of the internet, with its online journalism, that gives us the greatest chance to keep our language honest.